Vaccine Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring the rollout of COVID-19 immunizations.
Since last March, the 18 clinics I run in South and Central Los Angeles have been on the frontlines of COVID-19. Like many providers, we’ve faced unbelievable obstacles throughout the pandemic. To name a few: There were the shady businesses that popped up in the midst of the crisis to make a quick buck on masks and gloves, the scramble to shift appointments to telehealth when many of our patients do not have internet access, and the overall lack of guidance from the last presidential administration. Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out, we’re facing another unexpected reality: mobs of angry vaccine chasers.
Our clinics serve more than 100,000 people, most of whom are Latino and Black, and many of whom are extremely low income. We are the largest COVID-19 vaccine provider in South L.A., and we have provided more than 20,000 vaccines over the past three weeks to health care workers and seniors—mostly people of color—from the area. Despite the fact that California is still in Phase 1B of vaccine distribution, in which largely only health care workers and seniors are qualified to receive it, every day, hundreds of mostly white, unqualified Westside residents are flooding our clinics.
They line up with lawn chairs and laptops before the vaccine clinic is even open. They demand to use our bathrooms, and their presence blocks seniors and health care workers from easily accessing our vaccine clinics. They heckle and intimidate our staff members, all of whom are Latino and/or Black. They threaten to “call the newspapers” because we won’t let them cut the line. One man even spit at a security guard who wouldn’t let him cut in front of an 82-year-old Black woman who had an appointment.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been forced to double the number of security staff to manage the crowds. I suspect that stories of providers throwing vaccines away or doses going to people who are in the right place at the right time are to blame for all these people showing up. But our clinics never trash vaccines or give them out to lucky bystanders. We have a pool of local residents, mostly seniors, whom we would bring in if there were no-shows or leftover doses.
It’s not just physical mobs. These young white people have also figured out how to outsmart California’s vaccine appointment software. The system, which is clunky and inefficient, has a loophole that allows non–health care workers and nonseniors to make appointments by clicking “Other” when asked about their age and profession. They go onto the system as soon as the appointments are posted and book them up—there’s no way right now to automatically screen these people out. When health care workers finally get home from working all day and try to schedule an appointment, the slots are often all full.
The other week, several hundred first-shot appointments were made by self-identified white, non–health care workers for our clinics alone, preventing hundreds of qualified health care workers and seniors from accessing appointments. Luckily we caught it before the vaccine clinic operations began, since we noticed many appointments checked “Other” were accompanied with birthdates that made it clear they were not seniors. But we had to spend hours and hours of staff time calling to verify the patients’ information before canceling their appointments and replacing them with seniors who were on waitlists. The website clearly needs to be fixed, but we’ve been alarmed at the selfishness that has seeped through the cracks in the system. Gumming up a severely strained health care system as we try to deliver lifesaving resources to those who need them most could cost people their health, or worse.
L.A. is the epicenter of the pandemic, and Latino and Black people here have shouldered the burden in every way imaginable. It’s critical that we get these communities the vaccine quickly. Community leaders had to fight to ensure South L.A. was prioritized after initial plans were rolled out to send vaccines to hospitals and retail locations that would have been difficult for people here to access. That’s why, even when the vaccine becomes available to the wider population, people with the time and resources to travel should plan to seek out local clinics instead of flocking to other communities in hopes of getting a dose more quickly.
Throughout the pandemic, countless people have made selfish decisions that have ultimately just made it worse for everyone—from people who have refused to wear masks, to those who have knowingly traveled while having COVID-19, to those who have chosen to dine indoors despite warnings from health officials and pleading from restaurant workers to just order takeout instead. Unless you are being directly offered a vaccine that will otherwise spoil (and such stories, I think, are much rarer than they might seem), just be patient. Booking an online appointment when it’s not your turn, or staking out at a clinic, will simply disrupt the effort to combat COVID-19 and keep everyone safe. A vaccine is a public health tool, not a concert ticket.